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Square Enix: A Tale Of Two Gaming Cultures

For two years, Square Enix North America CEO Mike Fischer has been bridging the East-West cultures between Square Enix’s Japanese headquarters and its studios in Europe and North America, while carving a niche in new gaming genres and platforms. His ideas are starting to come to market, from even the unlikeliest of places–like tackle shops.

Square Enix: A Tale Of Two Gaming Cultures

When Mike Fischer took the reins of the U.S. subsidiary of Square Enix in 2010, the Japanese developer of Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest had just merged with Britain’s Eidos, creator of Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Deus Ex. It was a marriage of two gaming companies and Eastern and Western sensibilities. Complicating matters was the changing gaming landscape thanks to exploding social media and mobile platforms.

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As CEO of Square Enix North America, Fischer was tasked with bridging cultures in both managerial and content development capacities, and navigating through new gaming genres and platforms. Those directives are now coming to fruition in such disparate forms as Final Fantasy XIII-2, the latest installment of its 25-year-old flagship title that released Jan. 31; The Great Outdoors, a hunting/fishing-themed MMO (massive multiplayer online game); and Quantum Conundrum, a whimsical puzzle game from rising star Kim Swift.

“I was challenged to find a way for two corporate and gaming cultures to communicate, and bring in fresh talent who could do more than just localize and market games from Japan and Europe,“ says Fischer, who is fluent in Japanese and collaborates with studios in Tokyo, London, Copenhagen, Montreal, and Redwood City, CA, from his Los Angeles base. “At the same time, there’s a global shift towards different types of gaming and business models in online, social, and mobile gaming. I inherited this really unique model for our subsidiary. I have this incredible flow of content [from Square Enix and Eidos] that can sustain our business and pay our rent, so we can create smaller, more agile projects and take more creative risks.”

Photo courtesy of Eric So

Cultural Differences in Game Design

Fischer’s multi-culturalism is a by-product of a 20-year career in Japan, the U.S., and the U.K. at Nintendo, Sega, Namco, and Microsoft. An engineering-turned-business major, Fischer initially moved to Japan to teach English in 1988, when gaming jobs proved scarce, and taught himself Japanese through books, conversation, and translating gaming manuals.

Within the corporate structure of Square Enix, Fischer notes more of a cultural chasm between creatives and suits, than between hemispheres. “Two game developers from two different countries will be able to get along and communicate better than a marketer and engineer from the same company,“ he laughs.

Cultural differences arise in how the regional offices engage their respective creative communities. Japanese studios focus on a single creator’s big vision, while Western studios require more advanced planning. “A Japanese developer might throw down a four-page handwritten treatment for a game, and it’s about the studios grokking the developer’s sensibility,” says Fischer. “Whereas a Western developer will turn in a 300-page document with every aspect mapped out, and key is to understand the spirit of the game. Neither one is ideal. You want to know what you’re getting, but you also want flexibility.

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”One of the things I’m trying to do is get Japanese developers involved more in market research, which is turning out to be less difficult than I thought,” he adds. “They seem open to the constructive feedback. What I’ve learned is there’s no formula for making a great game. Both cultures take are very different approaches, and are coming out with very unique and successful products.“

Then there are the products themselves. Cultural differences manifest not only in game genre, but their structure, and how they’re played. ”Japanese gamers have a very delicate Japanese learning process, where you’re constantly adding to your skills of moves and strategies. Little by little, almost intuitively, you’re learning how to play.“ By comparison, Western games tend toward a more overt try-and-fail method of tackling complicated controls through pop-up instructions during the first one or two levels.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an example of those merging sensibilities, incorporating feedback from Western gamers that fundamentally changed its structure from its prequel. “People complained Final Fantasy XIII was too linear, and didn’t offer enough multiple branching or free-roaming opportunities for players to influence elements of the game,” says Fischer. “The new version has a time-travel component so you can change the future, and jump back and forth throughout the game.”

Taking Chances

Square Enix’s existing revenue streams, content, and infrastructure have freed the North American office to pursue new, quirkier niches and players. The smaller cost to develop such mobile and social media games–a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars, compared to traditional games’ $30-$100 million–enables Fischer to take greater creative risks.

“The way people consume digital media is changing and we need to change with it,“ says Fischer. “It’s not only about new business models, but new ways to make and play games, as well as new players. There are people playing games on Facebook who never touched a videogame before. I can treat these like pilot episodes of TV series. I can do an initial episode or smaller version of the game and, based on its success, come out with another iteration or larger scale piece on a step-by-step basis.“

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Examples include the upcoming Quantum Conundrum, an unconventional puzzle game where players jump through kooky dimensions to accomplish tasks; Scarygirl, a Jan. 18 release based on a children’s book series about a girl abandoned by her parents and raised by sea creatures; and an upcoming project with Cryptozoic, makers of The Walking Dead board game and trading cards. The most unlikely game-theme fare is the upcoming MMO The Great Outdoors.

“A massive multiplayer online game built around a hunting, fishing, and outdoor lifestyle is definitely not going to come from Europe or Japan. I walked into a fishing, hunting, and tackle store and realized all the lures and equipment could work for game microtransactions,” says Fischer, referring to the virtual tools, like weapons, that players can purchase to advance in games. “I looked at the demographic that enjoys hunting, fishing, and camping, and it’s people who don’t have any online social outlet for that, and spend a lot of money on it.

“Before, there wasn’t an avenue to reach people outside of fixed genres,” Fischer adds. “And now, because of the advent of online gaming bringing in new players, and the cost to develop these games is a lot less, you really are starting to see a renaissance of new types of gaming and innovation. My advantage is not having to retool a big established studio with a large overhead to make these new types of games. I can start fresh.“

(Mike Fischer photo courtesy of Eric So)

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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